i wish i could convey the extent to which a handful of albums -- section 25's always now, cabaret voltaire's red mecca, chrome's red exposure, pere ubu's dub housing, ultravox's ha!-ha!-ha! -- increasingly strike me today as profoundly bizarre things for the 16-year-old kid from suburban cleveland that i was to be tattooing his brain and ears with in the early-to-mid 1980s.
even to people familiar with the music of joy division and new order -- and i mean early new order: nothing was more devastating in 1983 than listening to bob hisnay, host of WCSB 89.3 FM's "radio nine" show, boast of having a test pressing of the new 12" single from new order, only to hear the pathetic computer-driven rhythmic motif that dominated that song in all its dancefloor glory -- the factory records ethos cannot automatically or easily be conveyed. (the film 24 hour party people does little on this front either.) it's really an insider/esoteric kind of thing, of which the music and martin hannett's trademark production values are only one part. the artifacts, the objects themselves, are quite another.
always now may be the consummate factory records product. on bright yellow, unusually heavy cover stock, the elegant black type unencumbered by such nuisances as punctuation or word breaks brings what would otherwise be considered banal production details into the foreground, on par with the song titles themselves. the rule of measure along the bottom, combined with the graphic symbol/logos on the inside, suggest secret craftsmen's guilds or revolutionary political parties. and what an inside to behold: remove the tab from its slot and lift the flap up -- this isn't so much an album cover as an invitation to a very interesting trip -- and you will be greeted with some of the most marvelous marbled paper ever to grace a piece or recorded music, in which strands of the cover's yellow are swirled into oceans of blue. this is an audiophile's fetish object par excellance. who cares what the music sounds like?
of course the music suffers the fate of nearly all factory label product, the manditory comparisons to the gloomy alienation of joy division and new order. section 25 makes them both sound like jangly pop tunesmiths by comparison. the fact of a lot of joy divsion material was that bass player peter hook knew how to play his instrument better than guitatist bernard sumner, so the melody in a joy division tune often goes to the bass. the same holds true with section 25 if you remove the word melody. "friendly fires," the opening track on always now, is built around lawrence cassidy's eight-note bass figure that repats a fundamental, its octave and its major sixth; meanwhile his brother vincent's tribal dumbs pound away in the same figure, swirls of paul wiggin's tuneless guitarwash cascade around while lawrence intones affectlessly, "no one can escape / this kind of war / 40,000 feet / above the floor" (check my math but i'm pretty sure that's about eight miles high), all to come crashing down with four shimmering gong thwacks that merge and dissolve into electronoise dribble. junior, this is not your father's three-minute pop song.
I knew nothing of psychedelia at the time and so did not catch any of the obvious saucerful of secrets supporting this particular dish. (my limited exposure to krautrock consisted of early kraftwerk and tangerine dream, which i could only account for as vaguely interesting hippie space noodling.) what i'm surprised that i did not connect up here was the obvious allegiances with PiL's metal box (of which i was and remain a big fan), particularly on "dirty disco" (with a likely nod to PiL's own "death disco"). "c.p" bumps up the melodic potenial with a chord "progression" taking place when the two-note bass figure is repeated one whole step down: its door-knocker stereo-separated drums and guitar electronoise would make it and the other instrumental number from side one, entitled "inside out" (actually featuring some piano!), not too uncomfortable sitting alongside brian eno's music for films. the remainder of this side, "loose talk costs lives" and "melt close," hew more closely to stereotypical joy division fare (bass-led melody, dour vocals).
side two's "hit" (of what pray tell?) opens with a few seconds of silence and accidental guitar notes before what has to be one of martin hannett's most classic percussive bombshells, a bass drum stroke that sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of an elevator shaft. across a simple bass melody and eerie guitar wash, lawrence cassidy intones with utter lack of affect, "ooh, life's a feeling. yeah."
with additional lines like "there's plenty of sadness already today, so why should we make any more" and "the future's uncertain for us all right now, why make things worse," this is the ultimate minimalist mix of post-punk dourness and cool psychedelia. "babies in the bardo," with its sitar-like guitar and electronic drones that resemble tibetan 12-foot steel trumpets, extends the eastern theme that will be picked in "sutra," from their followup longplayer the key of dreams, while the balance of side two, "be brave" and "new horizons," may be the album's most successful ventures into JD terrain.
the factory reissue program undertaken by les temps modernes has been quite faithfully updating these gems for the digital age, including (as they often do) key singles-only releases -- in this case some of which eluded a factory collector even as ardent as myself, or that preceded always now, including the "girls don't count" 12-inch, whose a-side title track features lyrics -- "girls. don't. count. girls don't count, girls dont count [repeat liberally, substituting "money," "talk," etc.]" -- that encouraged one NME reviewer to write: "Girls don't count, money doesn't count, Section 25's irony doesn't work. Count me out." meanwhile, "knew noise" (sharing the b-side with "up to you") also really brings out the band's PiL side. (there's a sense too in which, in the context of minimalist postpunk noise, this stuff might be fruitfully compared with the new york no wave. tho throbbing gristle may very well have beaten all the yanks to that punch.)
an excellent history can be found on the band's website.